Butting Heads (and iPhones): Economists Robert Gordon and Joel Mokyr Duke it Out in the Wall Street Journal

Photo Credit: WSJ.comNorthwestern Professors of Economics Robert Gordon and Joel Mokyr just can’t seem to get along.

In this past weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, the two voice some distinctly adverse ideas about technological innovation in the twenty-first century – on the one hand, its success, and on the other, its stagnation.

Professor Mokyr, author of The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy and co-author of The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times is an economic historian who’s altogether positive about the economic direction of the world-at-large. But this isn’t just blind optimism; in fact, it’s due in large part to the rapid rate of technological innovation. Mokyr notes that “new tools have led to economic breakthroughs,” and that since the field of technology is vast and unremitting, we’re hardly in danger of economic collapse.


“The divergent views are more than academic. For many Americans, the recession left behind the scars of lost jobs, lower wages and depressed home prices. The question is whether tough times are here for good. The answer depends on who you ask.”


But Professor Gordon, a macroeconomist and author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Rainbow: The American Standard of Living Since the Civil War (Princeton), and of the best-selling textbook, Macroeconomics, is hugely skeptical of such theories. He asks us to compare useful and revolutionary objects, like the flushing toilet, to the newest iPad; the former, already invented, is indispensable. Everything created thereafter is simply excess – the cherry on top, if you will. And, as new developments become only incrementally more advanced than their predecessors, technological progress will slowly grind to an anticlimactic halt.

The op-ed also gives some interesting background on both Gordon and Mokyr and tries to posit the origins of their respective beliefs, whether positive or negative. Despite their conflicts, the two can concede to one point: that the twenty-first century is unarguably the best time to be born, and the revelation is certainly an encouraging one.

Unusual Destinations for a New York Stay-cation (#NYNobodyKnows)

New Yorkers might think they have to leave the city for a great vacation, but here are some suggestions for new and delightful places to visit on a New York City stay-cation from Bill Helmreich, the author of The New York Nobody Knows. For visitors from out of town, these destinations offer a side of the city separate from the usual tourist fare. Because of the distances between these places travel by auto is advisable, except for Manhattan, where travel by cab and public transportation is another option.

Photo 4

Where in Manhattan is this delightful spot?

Manhattan:

Besides the popular destinations, there’s much else to see. Starting from the North, Fort Tryon Park is a must at this time of the year. Nearby, walk down Pinehurst and Cabrini Avenues in Washington Heights, and don’t miss Chittenden Avenue at 187th St., with a fabulous view of the Hudson, the Jersey cliffs, and the George Washington Bridge, and the famous (look it up) Halloween House. On E. 162nd Street, you’ll find Jumel Terrace, one of a kind wooden homes built in the nineteenth Century on a cobbled street, now selling for up to one million dollars. For authentic (not tourist) gospel, stop in at a small church on 114th Street, just east of 1st Avenue. and for arguably the most beautiful brownstone street in Manhattan, go down 78th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue. And, of course, there’s the gentrified Lower East Side, the East Village area (especially 9th Street east all the way to Tompkins Square Park) and much more.

Bronx:

Photo 18

This spot offers a “taste of Puerto Rico in the Bronx,” according to Helmreich

The quite safe Harding Park section in the Bronx feels like you’ve stepped back into history. It’s basically a Puerto Rican village, with small, neatly tended cottages fronted by charming gardens. Chickens scampering across the narrow roads and the beating rhythms of Spanish music give it an air of authenticity. And the drop-dead views of the Manhattan skyline across the East River make it the quintessentially paradoxical Gotham experience — one of the many communities with a small-town feel, under the umbrella of the most sophisticated twenty-first-century city in the world.

And while you’re there, visit Arthur Avenue and its many first-rate Italian restaurants and cafés. For sheer natural beauty, visit Pelham Bay Park. Over three times the size of Central Park, its sweeping views of rolling hills and the nearby bay are worth the effort. You’ll need a cart for this excursion, but you won’t be sorry.

Photo 26

Steve’s Place in Brooklyn

Queens:

Go to Linden Boulevard near 180th Street in St. Albans and see the mural of all the jazz greats who once lived in the area — Fats Waller, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and more. Visit nearby Addisleigh Park. For Afghani, Tibetan, Filipino, Hispanic, Thai, and Indian eateries of all types, walk between 82nd and 72nd Streets along Roosevelt Avenue. For beautiful homes and mansions with spectacular views of the water and bridges, stroll through Douglaston or Forest Hills Gardens. For an old-fashioned candy store and ice cream parlor, visit Eddie’s Sweet Shop at 105-29 Metropolitan Ave, near 72nd Road.

Brooklyn:

If you’re looking for nostalgia, take a trip to 2056 85th Street in Bensonhurst. Outside, you’ll see a most remarkable collection of Brooklyn’s history and that of the country — Betty Boop, Superman’s phone booth, the Fonz, Ebbets Field, Godfather types, Wildroot hair cream, vintage autos behind garage door, and much more. Look at the incredible gingerbread house at 8200 Narrows Ave, built in 1917. There’s the incredible graffiti at Troutman and St. Nicholas or Waterbury and Meserole, both in Bushwick. And check out beautiful Marine Park, with a nearby fishing village area called Gerritsen Beach.

Photo 31

Serenity now… at the Chinese Scholars Garden in Snug Harbor

Staten Island:

Enjoy a boardwalk stroll on South Beach where people sunbathe, play volleyball, and just relax. It’s 150 years old and was the locale for at least 100 films shot in the 1890s. Many silent films stars, like actress Lillian Gish and director W. D. Griffith, got their start there. Next to Snug Harbor is beautiful Von Briesen Park, adjacent to the bridge. Don’t miss the $5 million Chinese Scholar’s Garden with its stunning flowers, tiny waterfalls, and bridges, nestled within the Staten Island Botanical Gardens, a great outdoor wedding venue.

 

Quick Questions for Katherine Freese, author of The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Katherine FreeseKatherine Freese is the George E. Uhlenbeck Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan, and the Associate Director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics. Her work has a strong focus on topics within theoretical cosmology and astroparticle physics, particularly in identifying the dark matter and dark energy that permeate the universe.

Her latest book, The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter, details the quest to solve one of the greatest scientific enigmas of all time – what is the universe made of? Dr. Freese, one of the leading experts on dark matter, recounts the earliest speculation about this murky subject stretching from the 1930s to present day in clear, accessible prose. Dr. Freese received her B.A. in Physics from Princeton University; her M.A. in Physics from Columbia University; and her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago, where she was a recipient of the William Rainey Harper Dissertation Fellowship – the highest honor that the university offers to any graduate student.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Katherine Freese: I was lucky to have role models and mentors who encouraged me to go into science. My parents, who were biologists, were among the founders of the field of molecular biology. Since my mother was a scientist, the notion of becoming a woman scientist wasn’t foreign to me. I dedicated my book The Cosmic Cocktail to them, as well at to my Ph.D. advisor, who was also very important.

I started graduate school as an experimentalist, working as a particle accelerator outside of Chicago to study elementary particles. Twice a week I drove into the city to take a class from David Schramm on cosmology. He was a giant of a man, both physically and intellectually. He was an Olympic hopeful wrestling champ, with the nickname “Schrammbo.” His course was so inspiring that I switched fields to work with him as my Ph.D. advisor. The field of particle astrophysics, applying the ideas of the smallest particles to the largest astronomical objects like galaxies, was in its infancy, and I learned from the master.

What would you have been if not a scientist?

I found it very hard to choose only career; in high school and college I loved everything. I always wanted to be a writer and an actress. But in the end I felt compelled to do something using mathematics, because it is ultimately so beautiful and satisfying.


“…We are creating our own questions, always driven by new technology.”


What is the biggest misunderstanding about what you do?

Now this is very funny. When I tell people I’m a cosmologist, they think I must be very good at make-up and they say, “Well that’s a good career for a woman!” No, I’m not a cosmetologist. If I say I’m an astronomer, they want me to read their palms. No, I’m not an astrologer.

If I say I’m a physicist, they think I must live in the world of the nerds because only really geeky people to physics. Well that is just plain wrong! We are not calculating balls rolling down hills (a problem that was solved centuries ago). Instead we are creating our own questions, always driven by new technology. We get to be very creative, and very collaborative, and we have a lot of fun. It is this myth that physicists are boring people that I would like to dispel in this book.

In the end I have learned to say I’m an astrophysicist because people seem to understand that best.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote the book for two reasons. I wanted to communicate the science I work on and I wanted to communicate the experience of being a scientist. It is both a popular-level book about science and a memoir.

The science side is the hunt for dark matter. Most of the matter in galaxies consists of as yet unidentified dark matter, probably some new kind of fundamental particle. This mystery was first identified in the 1930s, and I wrote the book now because scientists feel they are on the verge of discovery. I wanted to communicate the excitement that we are all feeling about resolving the bulk of the mass in the Universe. It is a great story and I thought people should know about it. Everyone should be aware of this momentous breakthrough that changes the way we look at our world.


“Science is collaborative; it’s fun. I wanted to share that experience.”


AND also, very importantly – I wanted to communicate the experience of being a scientist. How much fun it is, how exciting and creative, because I think people don’t realize that. The book tells my personal journey as a scientist, and recounts tales of the personalities of the remarkable people I met along the way. Doing science is in some ways a form of art. In the visual arts, the eyes see the colors and forms; it stimulates the brain and it gives you a high. In physics, it’s a different language, not of color or sound, but of mathematics. I get a high from doing science, and it can be better than drinking a cocktail! We are at the forefront of technology and we get to be very creative, every day. Science is collaborative; it’s fun. I wanted to share that experience.

A third secret reason for writing the book is to reach out to young women, to let them know that they too can pursue their dreams. If math or science is their passion, they should pursue it. Many of the top people in dark matter studies are women and I highlight their successes so that young women can have role models in the sciences.

My book, The Cosmic Cocktail, is the story of this search for dark matter. Like all discoveries and searches and adventures, the hunt for an answer to one of the mysteries of physics has been full of drama and excitement and surprise. And some pretty amazing characters!

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

It took me about a year and a half to write the book. I’m not a morning person, so I would wake up at around 10 AM, and get to work an hour later. I worked best on my laptop at the kitchen table in my house. Since I am a professor at the University of Michigan, of course I also had to balance my writing with research, teaching, and administrative work at the University. Sometimes for several months I would get nothing done on my book, and other times, I focused on it exclusively. I was working 7 days a week, every waking hour (other than when I was at the gym) to get all this done for about a year, and that was not easy!

In March 2013 I had a concussion in the swimming pool, when another swimmer jumped in without telling me. I came off of the wall after my flip-turn and my head crashed directly into his. It’s a little unfair that he was completely uninjured whereas I was in agony for about a month. Concussion headaches are severe: I remember thinking that the Greek god Hephaestus (the blacksmith to the gods) was hammering a pick into my brain. I thought, just get it over with and split my head open! Since I couldn’t leave the house for a month I was incredibly productive on my book, working on it for up to ten hours a day. I couldn’t handle sound or light of any kind so sat there with my sunglasses on and did nothing but write. Not a modus operandi that I would recommend to anyone else! But I did get a lot done.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

I first tried to write a book about cosmology ten years ago, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote down a bunch of facts about the Universe, and it all sounded very dry. But over the past ten years, I’ve been teaching students, and I gradually realized that they were much more interested if I told stories. I would describe the personalities of the scientists, or talk about some of the adventures we have in the process of doing the science. Then the students became much more excited about the course I was teaching and they ended up learning a lot more as a consequence. So gradually I came to merge my writing about the subject matter of cosmology with a memoir of my own history as a scientist. I guess you could say I found my “voice” as a writer.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

I hope that I have succeeded in conveying the fun and passion of doing science. I badly would like to dispel the myth that scientists are nerdy people working on boring subjects, calculating formulas to solve problems laid out for us by other people. We are pretty interesting! We create our own problems, driven by new advances in technology that allow us to be creative and fun. I hope I can convince young women that they can participate in this amazingly enjoyable and collaborative world of science. And of course I do believe that people who read this book will learn about the nature of the Universe, one of the deepest mysteries of modern science.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

I have written The Cosmic Cocktail for the interested public as my audience. The book is both science and memoir. I am often asked, “Will I understand this book?” And my answer is yes. I think people are smart and interested in understanding their world. It is human nature to explore, and to ask questions about our Universe. I have not dumbed it down but I did definitely work to make it clear to the general public for whom this is not the field of study, not their area of expertise.

The book is lighthearted and fun and tells about the science of Dark Matter and also the personalities and personal stories of people involved. My goal is to share with people the excitement of doing science!

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

The Cosmic Cocktail is the perfect name for the book, as it is a recipe for the Universe —for what the Universe is made of. People find the answer very surprising. If we add up all the material of our daily experience — our bodies, the air, the walls, the vodka and gin, the stars and planets — all of that adds up to only 5% of the content of the Universe. The rest is the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that constitute the bulk of the Universe. The nature of the dark matter has been a major focus of my research and is the subject of this book.

What are you reading right now?

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This book is a wonderful award-winning science fiction novel published in 2009. Set in the 23rd century, the book explores a dystopian future: most food has been genetically engineered to be sterile (with production controlled by a few powerful companies); carbon based energy has been used up and manually wound up springs are used instead; and a new humanoid life-form has been created, a “windup-girl.” The book is a great story and is very thought provoking.

What is your next project?

Dark stars. In 2007, my collaborators and I proposed the existence of a new kind of star, powered by dark matter annihilation rather than by fusion. We were inspired to call these objects “dark stars” after a song of the same name by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The first stars that form in the history of the Universe, 200 million years after the Big Bang, reside in very dark matter-rich environments. Though the stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, a smattering of dark matter is enough to heat them and allow them to become very big and bright. They can grow to become a million times as massive as the Sun and a billion times as bright. The upcoming sequel to Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, will launch in 2018 and should be able to see them. We are now working on making predictions for what dark stars should look like in data taken by this space mission.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Katherine Freese is the author of:

The Cosmic Cocktail The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter by Katherine Freese
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691153353
264 pp. | 6 x 9 | 15 color illus. 42 halftones. 31 line illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400850075 | Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]

11-Year-Old Birder Raises Money for Conservation with #PhotoBigDay

Dessi1Dessi Sieburth, an 11-year-old birder from Pasadena, California, has just set the PhotoBigDay record for Antelope Valley, and for a great cause.

Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, co-authors of The Warbler Guide, started PhotoBigDay earlier this spring. Big Days are a tradition in the world of birding, a challenge to see how many different species of birds you can spot in a single day. Today, Big Days have become increasingly competitive, with seasoned birders and ornithologists using advanced equipment to catalogue species midnight to midnight. Stephenson and Whittle created PhotoBigDay with ordinary birders in mind, and with an added twist: participants must document every bird they see on film.

big photo day white faced ibisSieburth recorded 85 species on his PhotoBigDay, including:

  • White-Faced Ibis
  • Snowy Egret
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Caspian Tern
  • American White Pelican
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Wilson’s Warbler
  • Western Tanager
  • Nuttal’s Woodpecker
  • Osprey

Sieburth used his PhotoBigDay as a fundraiser for conservation, and raised $200 so far for the preservation of a local migration area and seed for bird feeders.

 

Photos here are courtesy of Beatrix Schwarz, Dessi’s proud mother!

Watch this: Digiscoping with Clay and Sharon, Episode 6

This episode features some pretty great guest appearances by professional actors like Kelvin Hatle, Dawn Krosnowski and Birds and Beers regular Duck Washington, so don’t miss it! (I especially enjoyed the discreet whipping-out of binoculars – only a birder could pull that off).

Alas, the series is coming to an end – have you guessed the theme yet? For details on how to submit your guess and potentially win a Swarovski Spotting Scope, check out the BirdChick’s web site: http://www.birdchick.com/wp/2014/06/digiscoping-with-clay-and-sharon-episode-5-florida-birding/

Place Your Bets: Tim Chartier Develops FIFA Foe Fun to Predict World Cup Outcomes

Tim ChartierTim Chartier, author of Math Bytes: Google Bombs, Chocolate-Covered Pi, and Other Cool Bits in Computing has turned some mathematical tricks to help better predict the outcome of this year’s World Cup in Brazil.

Along with the help of fellow Davidson professor Michael Mossinghoff and Whittier professor Mark Kozek, Chartier developed FIFA Foe Fun, a program that enables us ordinary, algorithmically untalented folk to generate a slew of possible match outcomes. The tool weighs factors like penalty shoot-outs and the number of years of matches considered, all with the click of a couple buttons. Chartier used a similar strategy in his March Mathness project, which allowed students and basketball fans alike to create mathematically-produced brackets – many of which were overwhelmingly successful in their predictions.

Although the system usually places the most highly considered teams, like Brazil, Germany, and Argentina at the top, the gadget is still worth a look. Tinker around a bit, and let us know in the comments section how your results pan out over the course of the competition.

In the meantime, check out the video below to hear Chartier briefly spell out the logic of the formula.

Happy calculating!

Quick Questions for Richard Karban, author of How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook (Second Edition)

Richard KarbanDr. Richard Karban is a professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis. He is a recipient of the George Mercer Award, presented by the Ecological Society of America for outstanding research (1990) and was a 2010 Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Karban received a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Haverford College (1977) and completed his Ph.D. in Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania (1982). He is the recipient of nearly a dozen research grants, whose focuses range from population regulation to plant resistance of insects and pathogens. He is the author of How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook (Second Edition).

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Richard Karban: I grew up in an ugly and dangerous neighborhood in New York City. Natural history and natural areas were highly romanticized in my mind. Being an ecologist seemed like an exciting way to escape this life.

What is the book’s most important contribution?

Doing ecological research successfully requires a considerable amount of insider knowledge. We don’t teach these tips in academic classes. This book attempts to provide a simple set of guidelines for navigating the process of generating hypotheses, testing them, analyzing your results, and communicating with an interested audience. In my opinion, this is what we should be teaching ecology students, but aren’t.


“Indeed, confidence and persistence are the most important attributes that separate successful projects from failures.”


What was the biggest challenge with bringing this book to life?

The biggest challenge getting this book to happen was not allowing myself to get discouraged. I teach a graduate-level course in which each student develops an independent field project. The book started as a series of handouts that I gave my students. Each year, I revised my pile of materials. After a decade or so of revisions, I submitted a manuscript but was told that it was too short and lacked interesting visuals and other tools that would make the material accessible. Okay, so much for that, although I continued to add and tweak the content for my class. My wife, Mikaela Huntzinger, read what I had and convinced me that it would be useful to students; she also volunteered to add figures and boxes. Most of all, she encouraged me not to give up on the thing. Indeed, confidence and persistence are the most important attributes that separate successful projects from failures.

Why did you write this book?

I had a terrible time in grad school. I didn’t attend a large research university as an undergrad and I arrived with little sense of how to do research or thrive in an environment that valued research, publications, and grants above all else. Figuring out the culture was a painful process of trial and error. My experiences made me acutely aware of the “game” and made me want to share what I had learned to spare others the same pain.

Who is the main audience?

This book is intended primarily for young ecologists who can use some help posing interesting questions, answering them, and communicating what they find. Undergrads who want to do research and grad students doing a thesis are the two populations who will find the book most useful, although we hope that our colleagues will also get something from it.

How did you come up with the title and cover?

The title is a little presumptuous, but also conveys what we hope to provide in a few clear words – perfect.

The cover reflects my long-standing interest in streams that cut gently through landscapes. The first edition had a photo taken by my collaborator, Kaori Shiojiri, at our field site along Sagehen Creek. This edition features an abstraction of that image that I painted. If we write future editions, they will have further abstractions of that same theme done as a mosaic (Mikaela’s favorite medium) or as a stained glass (one of Ian’s).

Check out Chapter 1 of the book, here.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Richard Karban is the author of:

6-6 Ecology How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook (Second Edition) by Richard Karban, Mikaela Huntzinger, & Ian S. Pearse
Paperback | May 2014 | $24.95 / £16.95 | ISBN: 9780691161761
200 pp. | 5 x 8 | 8 line illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400851263 |   Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]

Is a “starvation diet” the cure for the crisis of the humanities?

Turner_PhilologyIt may seem strange, but as James Turner argues on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Conversations blog, the modern humanities may not be at “death’s door,” as so many commentators imply. He says that a longer view–one that extends back to ancient times–tells us that what we are seeing is a reemergence of a generalist, philological approach to the humanities. Back to Philology indeed!

Turner details the “forgotten origins of the modern humanities,” in much greater detail in his new intellectual history, Philology. You can read a free chapter here [PDF].

Listen to the dire talk around colleges and universities, read op-eds and magazines, and you might think the humanities were in greater danger than the earth’s climate. In fact, despite the overheated rhetoric, the humanities are not at death’s door. Contemporary pressures will more likely push them into a new shape, even ultimately a healthier one.

That claim might seem bizarre. The proportion of college students majoring in the humanities has sunk to an all-time low. Students have turned their backs on art history and literature in favor of studies, like accounting and nursing, that lead directly to jobs. Governors like Florida’s Rick Scott have worked to undercut fields of study not tuned closely to employment. President Obama wants education to stress science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Funds for research in disciplines like history and linguistics are drying up. Congress has already slashed the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and now Rep. Paul Ryan wants to kill it.

Analysts of higher education paint a more ambiguous picture. How many years ago you start counting—either majors or research dollars—determines how gloomy the humanities numbers look. And with more and more Americans going to college only to qualify themselves for work, most time-honored fields of study have taken a hit, not just the humanities. But even at a traditional, elite institution like Stanford, majors in humanities disciplines have fallen so low as to alarm faculty members into unprecedented missionary efforts.

To see how, paradoxically, a starvation diet may rejuvenate the humanities, it helps to take a long view. First of all, the humanities disciplines familiar in American higher education today did not even exist 200 years ago. Sure, in 1814 students learned the Greek and Latin languages, but no discipline called “classics” devoted itself to ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Yes, a college president in that era was likely to lecture on moral philosophy, but the broad range of topics covered by a modern philosophy department had no place in his institution.

Continue reading at The Chronicle of Higher Education web site: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/06/09/yes-the-humanities-are-struggling-but-they-will-endure/

Could India save Twitter? Misiek Piskorski discusses the future of social media with Yahoo! Finance

Harvard Business professor Misiek Piskorski is making the media rounds in New York to promote the publication of A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media. Here, with Yahoo! Finance, he discusses why Twitter needs to make a big play in India if it wants to stay relevant and competitive with other social media platforms like Facebook and Alibaba.

And here he discusses social media and the growth of Uber on Bloomberg TV:

 

bookjacket A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media
Mikolaj Jan Piskorski

Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691153391
288 pp. | 6 x 9 | 2 halftones. 13 line illus. 9 tables.eBook | ISBN: 9781400850020 |

Reviews
Table of Contents

Sample the book:
Preface[PDF] pdf-icon
Chapter 1[PDF] pdf-icon

Quick Questions for Charles D. Bailyn, author of What Does a Black Hole Look Like?

Charles BailynCharles D. Bailyn is the A. Bartlett Giamatti professor Astronomy and Physics at Yale University. He is currently serving as Dean of Faculty at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He was awarded the 2009 Bruno Rossi Prize from the American Astronomical Society for his work on measuring the masses of black holes, and the recipient of several other, equally prestigious awards.

Dr. Bailyn received his B.Sc. in Astronomy and Physics from Yale (1981) and completed his Ph.D. in Astronomy at Harvard (1987). His research interests are concentrated in High Energy Astrophysics and Galactic Astronomy, with a focus on observations of binary star systems containing black holes. His latest book, What Does a Black Hole Look Like? addresses lingering questions about the nature of Dark Matter and black holes, and is accessible to a variety of audiences.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Charles D. Bailyn: Like a lot of little kids in the late 1960s, I was fascinated by space travel, and I wanted to be an astronaut. But then someone told me about space sickness – I’m prone to motion sickness, and that sounded pretty awful to me. So “astronaut” morphed into “astrophysicist” – I liked the idea of exploring the universe through math and physics. In college I thought I would work on relativity theory, but I didn’t quite have the mathematical prowess for that, and around that time I found out that the X-ray astronomers were actually observing black holes and related objects. So as a graduate student and post-doc I gradually moved from being a theorist to being an observer. I’ve analyzed data from many of NASA’s orbiting observatories, so I ended up being involved with the space program after all.

What would you have been if not an astronomer?

I’ve always loved music, particularly vocal music, and I’ve spent a lot of time in and around various kinds of amateur singing groups. I could easily see myself as a choral conductor.

What is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about astronomy?

Well, I’m always a bit amused and dismayed when I tell someone that I’m an astronomer, and they ask “what’s your sign?” – as if astronomy and astrology are the same thing. I used to tell people very seriously that I’m an Orion – this is puzzling, since most people know it’s a constellation but not part of the zodiac. At one point I had an elaborate fake explanation worked out about how this could be.

Why did you write this book? Who do you see as its audience?

There seem to be two kinds of books on black holes and relativity – books addressing a popular audience that use no math at all, and textbooks that focus on developing the relevant physical theory. This book was designed to sit in the middle. It assumes a basic knowledge of college physics, but instead of deriving the theory, its primary concerns are the observations and their interpretation. I’m basically talking to myself as a sophomore or junior in college.


“The unseen parts of the Universe are the most intriguing, at least to me.”


How did you come up with the title?

The Frontiers in Physics (Princeton) series like to have questions in the title, and this one is particularly provocative. Black holes by definition cannot be seen directly, so asking what they “look like” is a bit of an oxymoron. But a lot of modern astrophysics is like that – we have powerful empirical evidence for all sorts of things we can’t see, from planets around distant stars to the Dark Matter and Dark Energy that make up most of the stuff in the Universe. The unseen parts of the Universe are the most intriguing, at least to me.

What are you working on now?

I’m turning the online version of my introductory astronomy course into a book – kind of a retro move, turning online content into book format! It will be for a non-scientific rather than a scientific audience. But mostly I’m doing administrative work these days – I’m currently in Singapore serving as the inaugural Dean of Faculty for Yale-NUS College, the region’s first fully residential liberal arts college. The importance of science in a liberal arts curriculum is a passion of mine – after all, astronomy was one of the original liberal arts – and I’m glad to have a chance to bring this kind of education to a new audience, even though it takes me away from my scientific work for a while.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been following the reading list for our second semester literature core class, starting from Don Quixote and Journey to the West, the first early modern novels in the European and Chinese traditions respectively, ending with Salman Rushdie, who is all about the interaction of East and West. It’s fun being a student again!

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Charles D. Bailyn is the author of:

Buy the Book image What Does a Black Hole Look Like? by Charles D. Bailyn
Hardcover | August 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691148823
224 pp. | 5 x 8 | 21 line illus.| eBook | ISBN: 9781400850563 | Reviews

Watch this: Digiscoping with Clay and Sharon, Episode 5

I had a fantastic time at Space Coast in January and this episode finds Clay and Sharon exploring the nearby Viera Wetlands where they run into some frisky herons that pretty much dash Sharon’s hopes of working a little less “blue” in 2014.

Have you caught on to the series theme yet? For details on how to submit your guess and potentially win a Swarovski Spotting Scope, check out the BirdChick’s web site: http://www.birdchick.com/wp/2014/06/digiscoping-with-clay-and-sharon-episode-5-florida-birding/

 

Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for the past week

These are the best-selling books for the past week.

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century by Jürgen Osterhammel
Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett
Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age by Steven Nadler
Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon edited by Barbara Cassin. This translation edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra & Michael Wood
Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us by Oscar E. Fernandez
Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better by Peter H. Schuck
The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson